The Four Noble Truths are the fundamental teachings of Buddhism. All other Buddhist teachings are branches that sprout from these basic four truths.
For some reason though, I never really paid attention to the Four Noble Truths. I found them vague and impractical. In fact, I never really got the difference between them. As I understood them these four truths only repeated “Life is suffering” in different terms, a statement I found unappealing and pessimistic.
This week however, I read a short essay on the Four Noble Truths written by Culadasa, my meditation teacher (here’s a link to the essay). Culadasa’s essay opened my eyes to the profound meaning conveyed by the Four Noble truths, which I previously couldn’t grasp.
I’d like to share with you my updated – and limited – understanding of the Four Noble Truths. I hope that this will bring to light the relevance of this ancient teaching, and maybe even clarify some aspects of the Path.
1. The Truth of Suffering
“Life is Suffering”. Doesn’t that sound sad and bitter? The original Pali word commonly translated as “suffering” is actually dukkha. The word dukkha, however, is more accurately translated as “unsatisfactoriness”. I think of dukkha as a subtle thirst that can never fully quenched, a nagging feeling that underlies all experience: regardless of pleasure or pain, I’m never completely content.
This dukkha, or unsatisfactoriness, is different from simple pain. It is a mental agitation produced by our (un-awakened) relationship to sensations. We all regularly feel some form of pain. Most of time, this pain produces mental suffering: we feel dislike, or even hatred, towards the pain, and try to push it away. Yet this mental “pushing away” is unsuccessful, and only adds to our misery.
Yet, there may be times where we feel pain without the corresponding dukkha. In these brief moments, the body feels pain, but the mind remains peaceful, undisturbed. This reminds me of an odd experience from my first Vipassana 10-day retreat. I had to sit through an hour-long meditation session without moving, and the pain was excruciating. For most of my sit, I was in mental agony. Negative thoughts were racing through my head: “The bell can’t ring soon enough!“, “I can’t take this anymore!“, “Why am I going through this!?“. A few minutes before the bell rang though, the unexpected happened. The mind gave up. It stopped complaining.
Pain was still there. But without the adverse mental commentary, pain only felt like another sensation. Sharpness here, numbness there and some itching over here. What a relief it was to see things as they were!
Although, at the time, I did not recognize it as such, this experience gave me a glimpse of the second Noble Truth.
2. The Cause of Suffering
The first Noble Truth tells us that there is suffering, dukkha. If we follow dukkha down to its roots, we find craving. This is the cause of suffering: the second Noble Truth.
The mind desires things it does not currently experience and tries to push away what it currently experiences. By trying to control and change what’s happening, the mind is under constant strain. This never-ending battle creates mental tension, an underlying layer of dissatisfaction that permeates all experiences. Yet this dukkha is entirely optional.
Suffering and happiness are both mind-generated. Insofar as the mind rejects things as they are, we suffer. Happiness works in the opposite fashion: we are happy to the degree that we accept things as they are.
Most meditation practices aim to help us help us see and accept things as they are. In fact, that’s exactly what the word Vipassana stands for. That is because the only barrier to lasting peace is mental craving. By resisting the way things are, we feel dissatisfied. Is there a way out?
3. The End of Suffering
The goal of the Buddhist path is simple: to end craving, therefore ending suffering. By practicing meditation, or even other types of practices, the mind may temporarily stop judging and reacting to experiences. In these brief moments, we get a glimpse of what it’s like to see things as they are. How much more calm, quiet and meaningful the world now seems!
Yet eventually, this peaceful state fades away. The mind goes back to its old habits of craving and suffering. Are we doomed to enjoy brief periods of mental peace, only to fall right back into dissatisfaction? No. The Third Noble Truth teaches us this cycle – samsara – can be escaped.
To end suffering, we need to take a deeper look at the mechanisms of craving. Why do we crave in the first place? Why can’t the mind naturally be at peace?
This lead us to the root of craving: a spooky, persistent and deep illusion about ourselves. We feel as though we are distinct entities, separate from the world around us. Self-consciousness has led us into a trap. We experience ourselves as a separate subject in a world of external objects. Somehow, we feel like we are on “this side” while the world is on “that side”.
This delusion leads us to believe that our well-being depends on our interactions with external objects. We therefore manipulate the world around us in an attempt to achieve lasting happiness. We pursue what is pleasant, and flee from what is unpleasant. But we never quite get there. As soon as we improve one aspect of our experience, the mind finds new ways to be dissatisfied. This endless chase is futile: external objects can’t provide the deep peace we are longing for. This pursuit of happiness is flawed, but it is based on a misconception so pervasive that we are blind to it.
To escape suffering, we have to uproot craving by breaking the illusion of being a separate “person”. We therefore arrive at the Fourth Noble Truth: the path towards this goal.
4. The Path Leading to the End of Suffering
Intellectual knowledge of the previous Noble Truths is not sufficient to escape dukkha. We need to experience these insights for ourselves so that they can sink in and transform the way we perceive ourselves and the world.
The path leading to the end of suffering is divided in three interdependent trainings: morality, meditation and wisdom.
First, training in morality means speaking, acting and living in ways that promote well-being for ourselves and others. Second, training in meditation means practicing meditation with proper effort to develop concentration and mindfulness. Finally, the training in wisdom, is what fully free us by transforming our view through investigation.
Since meditation has become a habit, I sometimes forget why I’m practicing. Understanding the Four Noble Truths helps me recall the reason why I’m practicing in the first place: to break free from the dukkha of separation.
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